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Earth: An Intimate History

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Earth, An Intimate History - R. Fortey

Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

A "geology for poets" book that delivers geology AND poetry, thanks to a paleontologist author who reaches deep into the science without leaving his heart and humanity behind. "Earth" packs nearly all the content of a university course not by sugar-coating it, but by bringing out its inherent savor.


Title: Earth: An Intimate History
Author: Richard Fortey
Publisher: Knopf/Random House
ISBN: 0375406263


  • Up to date yet futureproof
  • Comprehensive
  • Full of local color, analogy and anecdote
  • A groaner here and there
  • A lot to absorb
  • Photos not always the best
  • Personal treatment of geology infused with an expert's intimate perspective
  • Wide range of topics, many treated masterfully
  • Engaging prose suited to lovers of writing
  • Takes geology seriously as part of human culture

Book Review

I have long believed that geology should be more widely appreciated, but lovers of books and reading--not to mention those curious about the Earth around them--are not well served by much of the popular literature. John McPhee's monumental "Annals of the Former World" was a rare achievement in this line, finding compelling story lines in a bewildering field and delivering those stories in crackling prose. What McPhee did as a journalist, Richard Fortey does as a living scientist in "Earth: An Intimate History."

"Earth" is as much a history of its science as a history of the planet, and it is a good deal travelogue as well. Geology is everywhere you are, but some places are more special than others. Fortey focuses on some that are expected--Hawaii, the Grand Canyon, Los Angeles--and others that may not be, like the Bay of Naples, Newfoundland and the Scottish wilds. All of them have deep significance in the progress of geology as it grew from a branch of "natural philosophy" to today's jack-of-all-sciences, now enjoying a golden age.

Fortey's approach, he writes, "has been to visit particular places, to explore their natural and human history in an intimate way, thence to move to the deeper motor of the earth--to show how the lie of the land responds to a deeper beat, a slow and fundamental pulse." It serves up compelling reading for those in either of C. P. Snow's two cultures, sciences and humanities. This is the highest praise I can give "Earth." It is a "geology for poets" book that actually delivers both geology and poetry.

Fortey is British, the product of its universities, and an excellent stylist. Fans of the well-turned sentence, and those who savor allusions to English literature, will find much to enjoy. Geology instructors, who have an insatiable demand for analogies, will gain a whole new set here, some of them based on English cookery. Geologists will surely add some new places to visit for their life lists.

Earth, An Intimate History - R. Fortey

Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

As a geology text, "Earth" is sound everywhere important and in some places brilliant. Fortey is a trilobite specialist, and while he mentions them here and there with a faint trace of wistfulness, this is not a history of life on Earth (he has done that elsewhere in "Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth" and in "Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution"). Nor is it a treatise on geophysics or geochemistry, though both subjects get some useful armwaving.

Fortey is masterful with his explanation of plate tectonics and the concept's history. He is superb in tying place and geologic time. His field descriptions are vivid. His explanations of deep-Earth science go far while restricting chemical formulas to footnotes and eschewing all equations. Here his efforts to entertain show a little strain, as in quoting Yeats's "Widening Gyre" to illustrate the breakdown of ringwoodite. But no one among us could do better, and the attempt is laudable. I would highly recommend "Earth" to anyone with a geology degree, and to anyone who wishes they had learned more geology in school.

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